After the Budget speech, Yvette Cooper told the BBC that the tax system had to “not only be fair, but seen to be fair.” This was a huge admission of socialist intent dressed up as a noble principle: the Chief Secretary to the Treasury declaring that the symbolism of taxes matters as much as the money they actually raise. In this case, the symbolism of the measure is unambiguous. Labour now wants to position itself once again in its ancestral location on the ideological spectrum, as the party of the “have-nots”, penalising the “haves” for ... well, “having”. Brown wants to go into the election as the tribune of the hard-pressed low- and middle-earner, presenting those wicked Cameroon toffs as the protectors of the wealthy and the privileged.
This is why the Tory leader was dismissive about rather than morally outraged by the 50p announcement, which he declared was a red herring designed to put us off the scent of all the other taxes that will affect the less well-off. The modernised Tories are terrified of being seen as the party of the affluent. One can see why. But it is a very strange sight to see the leader of the Conservative Party not sending that particular ball sailing over the pavilion. And the risk in all this is that the Lawson-Thatcher consensus on penal tax gets forgotten in the struggle for political position, and that one of the greatest competitive advantages that Britain has enjoyed over its economic rivals is squandered without thought.
There was a time when Peter Mandelson would say that New Labour was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich,” and Tony Blair declared that it was no priority of his to cut David Beckham’s earnings. A founding principle of New Labour was that the party could never afford to be seen to be opposed to aspiration and that “Mondeo man” would only be won over to if he saw a vote for Labour as a vote for his own legitimate ambitions as well as the collectivist state.
Well, Labour has dumped that strategy once and for all. The Chancellor made it abundantly clear that the better-off will be portrayed time and again between now and the election as the people who benefited from growth and who must now pay for the recession. Never mind that they coughed up more tax as a consequence of their earnings: this is the politics of emotion not logic. In response, the Tories must indeed be careful not to conform to the Labour caricature. But they should not be timorous, either, and lose the opportunity to seize back the traditional Conservative mantle of the party of aspiration.
If Britain is to get back on its feet again, it will need a new generation of entrepeneurs willing to take risks, to create wealth, to create jobs. Who, at the next election, will speak for them?